Writing Strategy Revealed: Backwards isn’t Bad When Outlining (from my writer’s notebook)


I do notebooks full of prewriting (zero-drafting in my world) before officially “starting” a novel, but I don’t outline before writing. It just doesn’t work for me.

Outlining does work for me, though, in the middle of a project and in the revision stages. At this point, an outline is more about understanding the shape of what I’ve written than using a list to decide what to write next. I outline in a number of different ways, but one of my favorites is to make thumbnail sketches of each chapter that consist of the first and last event as well as any key plot point in that chapter.

The first/last thing is a great way to “out” any chapter that’s not pulling its weight because it helps me to see how a chapter moves the story forward. When I’m finished, I have the movement of the whole book contained in a few pages of my writer’s notebook, and I don’t get lost in the details. Often this exercise helps me uncover structural imbalances and inspires me to think about how I can build up portions of the book that seem flimsy in comparison to other sections–or trim down flabby bits.

Here’s what it looks like in my writer’s notebook when I do this exercise (this is on an early draft of What Can’t Wait):


I try to think about how a chapter contributes to the forward movement of the book as well. Does it make the reader anticipate what’s next, or am I just coasting? Coasting chapters call for rethinking, at least some of the time. Even when you want to balance a lot of action with a mellower chapter or two, it’s important that what feels to the reader like a decrease in action is nevertheless full of strategically placed pieces that can become (retrospectively) important.

Oh, and I don’t just do this outlining for my work, either. If I think a book is amazing and am trying to learn from its structure, I’ll do the exercise with it. I did this with Jenny Downham’s lovely Before I Die and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.


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